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COLUMN ONE : U.S. warplane fell into obscurity : Its crash site in China, neglected nearly 60 years, gets a look

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Lin Zhengping was 13 the evening he saw the hills above his home glow. He was too frightened to go up and investigate.

The following day, word came that villagers had discovered the wreckage of a plane. Lin and two friends set out, climbing the narrow dirt paths they had helped furrow with their families’ oxen.

An hour later, after following the scent of burnt fuel, they arrived at the scene. The smoldering remains of a four-engine propeller plane was strewn across a ravine thick with brush and thorny trees. The glass canopy that fronted the bomber had snapped off the plane’s silver fuselage; the wings were still intact on each side of its tubular body.

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Lin and his fellow villagers, with no radio or telephones to communicate with the outside world, didn’t know the Korean War had erupted and that the United States and China were fighting. They had no idea that the plane was American or that anybody would look for it.

“People were excited,” Lin said. “They had never seen a plane before.”

Most villagers had not spoken in decades about that day in November 1950. Then one humid day last summer, a bus and four cars arrived at the remote mountain village and unloaded dozens of soldiers carrying hoes and shovels. They said they had come to find the remains of a U.S. warplane.

The crash would have stayed largely forgotten if China hadn’t reached an agreement with the U.S. last year to find missing U.S. service men and women. Chinese military historians digging through its archives then discovered old documents describing a crash of a U.S. bomber near Lin’s village, Jiaoshuikeng.

The recent search itself would have remained in anonymity had China’s state media not disclosed it last month, timed apparently to President Obama’s first visit to China. What could be a better gesture of goodwill than to turn over the remains of long-lost U.S. soldiers?

According to Chinese military archives, the plane was a B-29 carrying a crew of 15, or at least that’s what was assumed based on the number of bodies found near the wreckage. U.S. officials have been unable to identify the aircraft and said it was puzzling that a plane that ordinarily carried a crew of 11 would have so many people onboard.

The B-29 Superfortress helped turn the tide in World War II. B-29s carried and dropped the two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945. They were used for bombing early in the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953, but became obsolete toward the end of the conflict.

One of them went down in southern Guangdong province Nov. 5, 1950, about five months after the start of the Korean War and only days after the Chinese entered the fray in support of its communist ally North Korea. Although the crash site was about 1,000 miles from the Korean peninsula, it wasn’t far from Taiwan, where the U.S. had airplanes based.

At the crash site, villagers found charred corpses, one of which appeared to be a woman, another so small it could have been a boy. One body had not burned. It was of a man in a khaki uniform. Lin and the other villagers examined the body’s nose and red hair. He clearly was not Chinese.

The villagers hastily dug shallow graves and buried the bodies.

China, at the time, was in turmoil, and few paid much attention to the village, where people lived in rural poverty. A year earlier, Mao Tse-tung and his Communist army had taken control of the country after a bloody civil war and established the People’s Republic of China. In Jiaoshuikeng, 1,500 miles south of Beijing, villagers used tools and utensils made of wood or clay. Metal was too expensive.

Within days, villagers were stripping the crash site of valuables. They came with saws to cut up the plane into sheets of metal to sell in nearby towns, Lin recalled. Some remembered finding a tube of toothpaste and a military badge. Another villager pocketed some Korean ginseng. Chinese government archives say the locals also found a parachute, firearms and a Parker pen.

Even after all the large pieces of the plane were taken, the search for valuables continued for years. Children leading their grazing oxen up the slopes would inspect the ground.

Villagers said they couldn’t remember if anyone reported the incident but recalled that Chinese military officials came to the village in 1960 to inquire about the crash. But by then not much was left of the wreckage, they said.

Still, with each passing season, the crash cemented itself in village lore for those who had seen it. A fortuneteller declared that the angry spirit of one crew member had made a villager ill.

“We were scared to go cut firewood because we knew people had died there,” said Yin Huixian, a 78-year-old woman whose father had scavenged enough metal from the plane to melt down and turn into a water basin.

Nearly 60 years later, soldiers stood in front of the village school asking whether anyone remembered the crash and could help find the wreckage.

Villagers immediately pointed to Lin. The 72-year-old father of six had learned enough Mandarin as a construction worker in the boomtowns of Guangzhou and Shenzhen to communicate with the visitors. Most of the elders spoke a regional dialect that was indecipherable even to people living just 100 miles away.

Lin was born and raised in the village, a community of 300 inside a national forest near China’s southern coast, a region known for tea plantations and bamboo forests. Tall and wiry with a square jaw dotted with salt-and-pepper stubble, Lin can traverse the steep mountain above the village faster than men half his age. When he guided the soldiers, he wore simple plastic sandals and a straw hat. He used a sharp sickle to cut through the creeping grass that obscured parts of the path.

At the urging of village officials, he also carried offerings of chicken, fish and fruit to honor the dead. After they arrived at the rocky clearing where the redheaded airman might have been buried, Lin began the ritual of burning paper money and incense and setting off firecrackers.

The search team began spreading out, but the shoulder-high ferns and reeds, as well as gnarled branches that clung to clothes, proved too thick for the soldiers to systematically comb the area for evidence.

After four hours of searching, they were unable to find the graves and came back down the hill.

One of the lead archivists who dug up the B-29 documents and participated in the search, Song Chuanfu, told state media that any remains may have been washed away by floods. He called for donations of “special equipment” to continue the search.

The military tried another tack: A few months later, a few soldiers came back to the village and offered $1,500 to anyone who might have kept some of the debris. The only person to come forward was a middle-aged man who had a piece of metal no bigger than a dinner plate in his bedroom.

“My father got it,” said the man, who declined to give his first name, but like many in Jiaoshuikeng, had the surname Lin. “I donated it to the PLA [the People’s Libration Army]. I know they’re doing this because China is trying to build good relations with the U.S.”

With that, the soldiers left as suddenly as they came with what could have been the last remnant of a mystery the village had been living with for six decades. A U.S. search team is expected to arrive and scan the site in a few months.

Lin believes another search would be futile without first clearing the mountainside of vegetation. He’s doubtful the Chinese government would go to such trouble. It all seems so strange, Lin said, that the plane so few villagers remember would cause such a stir again.

“For 60 years,” he said, “no one cared.”

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david.pierson@latimes.com

Tommy Yang and Angelina Qu in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.


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